By Jim Colton
“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” -- Albert Schweitzer
As a photo editor, I was often confronted with impossible situations or extremely difficult stories to illustrate. I was constantly trying to come up with new ways to visually convey information that was essential for our readers to understand complex stories. Covering news was pretty much straight forward. But creating “illustration” could often be a daunting task.
Several new sports were to be introduced at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. As the photography editor for Sports Illustrated, I was tasked with the responsibility of illustrating them; Synchronized Diving, Trampolining, Taekwondo, Women’s Hammer Throw, Triathlon, as well as a few others. When it came to create that illustration or light that impossible shoot or even just to brainstorm to come up with a solution, I would always turn to Joe McNally.
I wanted to show the “motion” involved in each of the sports. For the Women’s Hammer Throw, Joe attached a blinking red light to the end of the hammer and used a long exposure to show the arc it took while spinning before release. For synchronized diving, McNally turned to stroboscopic photography, capturing the various stages of the dive. For Trampolining and Taekwondo, he used a combination of long exposures for ghosting and blasts of light to illustrate the movement. Each situation was more brilliant than the other…and all of them were done “in-camera!”
Joe is no stranger to impossible situations or intricate lighting. All one has to do is look at the work that he has published over the last 30 plus years. He’s been a staff photographer for LIFE magazine, a contract photographer for Sports Illustrated, a contributing photographer for National Geographic and his images have graced the covers of magazines such as TIME, Newsweek, Fortune, Entertainment Weekly, and the New York Times Sunday Magazine to name a few.
His advertising and commercial clients have included General Electric, FedEx, Sony, Adidas, Nikon, Epson and many others. His work has been recognized by every photographic competition imaginable including World Press Photo, POYi, PDN and Communication Arts. He’s been named one of the 100 Most Important People in Photography by American Photo and is a Nikon Ambassador. His project “Faces of Ground Zero,” using the world’s only life-sized Polaroid camera became a book, but he is also the author of several books including, “The Moment it Clicks,” and “The Hot Shoe Diaries,” (See links below) and is currently working on a new one tentatively titled, “The Real Deal.” McNally also gives back to the industry that has been good to him by conducting workshops and lectures around the world.
Photography, at its core, is “writing with light.” But it is truly the light within us which drives us to become better photographers and better human beings. And few have harnessed this energy as well as Joe. Diogenes held a lamp to light the way in search of an honest man. This week, zPhotoJournal has a conversation with the brilliant, complex and often humorous Joe McNally as we talk about his lamp that is always lit as he searches for the next great image.
Jim Colton: You and I go back a long way. Tell us a little about yourself before we met. How did you first get interested in photography and who or what were your earliest influences?
Joe McNally: I was a writing major in school, and taking a photo class was a requirement. I borrowed my dad’s camera and as soon as I took it in hand, it felt natural; felt like something I could do. I was allowed to stay in school at Syracuse, and did a graduate degree in photography. I left school, having done all the coursework, but I never finished my thesis, which was worth six credits. Years later, the school approached me and said, hey, just write up some thoughts and submit the Faces of Ground Zero book, and you’re done. I’m really happy to have the masters, to be honest. It was just one of those things. 27 years later, I got my degree!
During my time there, Fred Demarest, the chairman of the photo department was a huge influence on me. He’s just a remarkable teacher. He introduced me to the giants of photo history, like W. Eugene Smith and David Douglas Duncan. I started to plow through photo books, like Danny Lyon’s “Conversations with the Dead,” and the work of Ernst Haas. Fred also showed us stories, like a wonderful visual account of the Indian monsoon seasons, shot by New Zealander Brian Brake. He showed us how pictures could connect to each other, and thus the reader, and how a story was built.
The classic work I saw in school was just flat out breathtaking. Thus inspired, in 1976 I did something basically pretty stupid. I went to NYC! I had a fair amount of determination and few skills, but no experience. What was I doing in the city with the best photographers in the world?
I wanted, at that point, to be a newspaper photographer, so I took the first job I could get, which was as a copy-boy at the NY Daily News. It was a menial job, really, basically getting coffee, running errands, and occasionally being a runner for the staff photographers.
The big newspaper strike hit in 1978 and we all hit the streets, basically trying to survive and I called Danny Farrell, who at the time was the dean of newspaper shooters at the Daily News (the whole NY press scene, actually). He was the photo chief at a temp newspaper called the City News. I asked if I could do anything. He said he needed anything, everything. He would pay me $25 a picture if it ran.
I left my apartment and rarely went back there for the next 3-4 days. I shot weather features, kids in the park, and hit Studio 54 at night. By the end of the first week, he owed me about $300. He hired me at that point for $250 a week. I was launched! I shot playoffs, the World Series, got connected with UPI and AP, and shot like mad for three months.
This was a good thing because when we returned to work, in short order, I was fired! I had to hit the streets, but I was a known entity then (in a very small way) and I got lots of work as a stringer for the wires, the New York Times, and picked up the Philadelphia Inquirer as a client. All of sudden I was paying my rent with a camera.
Over that year, I finally allowed myself the title of professional photographer. That title always had great import to me. It meant you could do the job. You could work it out. You could pull your weight with a camera.
So shooters like Danny were a big influence. Others were kind to the new kid as well. Neal Boenzi, Eddie Hausner, Jim McGrath. Editors like Tommy DiLustro at AP. I had a lot of bumps, and failures, but I learned the ropes.
JC: Early in your career you were affiliated with an agency called Camera 5 founded by Ken Regan. During those years you did many assignments for us at Newsweek for photo editors like Jim Kenney and John Whelan. What do you remember about those times and specifically about those men?
JM: That was a great time. I loved working for Newsweek. It was a looser, much more run-and-gun, seat of the pants operation, compared to its more well-funded competition, TIME, just down the block. I could call upstairs on a Friday, and come up and watch this great news magazine get put to bed. It was heady stuff for a young photographer, just being able to sit around that central light table in the photo department, and share a beer, and even occasionally run into shooters like Wally McNamee. Holy smoke!
I loved the atmosphere, from watching you go through stacks of chromes with the precision and speed of a drill press, to hearing Jim Kenney shout at some poor, faint hearted soul, “Yeah, you heard me! I said it was gonna cost 20 G’s!” Or John Whelan standing up after a phone discussion with his wife about the lateness of a close and spreading his arms and shouting, “Never get married!” It rocked and rolled, and it was exciting. I couldn't believe I was a tiny part of it.
Jim Kenney was emblematic of the swashbuckling photo editor who was allowed to thrive back then. He would give you some dough to go explore and see what you came back with. He had a nose for a story, and a great eye. When I was in Northern Ireland, he covered me with a guarantee. I headed from there to London to do a shot for ABC TV of Peter Jennings, then stationed there as their anchor. I was shooting Jennings, and the Pope was shot. Peter offered me a free flight to Rome with him. I called Ken Regan, who called Jim, who said “Go!,Go!”
There wasn't much money changing hands back then in the magazine business, to be sure, but there was a wonderful sense of all of us being in the trenches together; photographers and editors all just competing and striving to do better…make deadline…hit stories hard and shoot pictures. I owe a great deal to Kenny, Whelan, and you for taking a chance on a young photog, and to Ken Regan, who was a straight shooter.
Ken was a good photographer, a good guy, and one tough competitor. When we all went to Poland to cover Pope John Paul II’s first visit to his homeland, we had to get Ken and his 600mm f4 lens and tripod up and into the stadium where the Pope was saying mass. It was the longest glass on the Newsweek team and therefore crucial.
There had to be literally hundreds and hundreds of thousands of the faithful stacked on top of one another. No room…literally. People were jammed against one another. We took a cart with the lens on it, and Ken, Newsweek staffer John Ficara and I lifted it onto our shoulders and just started bulling our way up the many steps with it. It was like being in a rugby scrum. When we got to the top of the stadium, I collapsed…my legs were literally shaking from the effort. But Ken, who was a good deal older than John and I, was already on it, scoping a position, eager to get the lens in the right place to maximize our coverage.
We were a group, I think, of 9 photographers, facing off against maybe 14 or so for TIME, and Ken had that competitive edge. He pushed himself, and if you were working with him, he pushed you to be a better photographer.
JC: You became a staff photographer for LIFE magazine and a contract photographer for Sports Illustrated. What were those years like and what were some of your favorite assignments for those publications?
JM: When I was offered a contract with SI, you could have knocked me over with a feather! I mean, I can’t shoot sports! Average at best. And here was a collection of the best sports shooters in the world, under one roof. But, they needed people who could tell stories…and do portraits…and occasionally light something besides an arena…so they found a use for me.
The best story I ever did for them was one of the first I ever shot; Indiana High School basketball. What a wonderful story to shoot. I rambled all over the back roads of Indiana for three weeks, shooting pictures of kids who just played for the love of it and practiced shooting at a hoop nailed over a barn door. It was rich, and real, and the magazine did a great job running it. They gave it about thirty pages, which was unheard of for a publication like that.
SI ruled the world of sports, and had money and power. But many of the editors there didn't understand photos, and the need for them to have room to breathe. You authored one of the most significant photo developments at that magazine when you went there and launched Leading Off; the opening section of three straight photo spreads. What a great way to announce the magazine to the reader.
It was pretty heady stuff to shoot for them. You had resources and enough time to get a worthwhile job done. And it was always a fight to get pictures played in the magazine. It was so tough that Bill Eppridge renamed the magazine, “Spots Illustrated.” You could always count on Epp to call it as he saw it!
When I became LIFE’s lone staffer in the nineties, it was a very different story. The magazine industry was already feeling some measure of diminishment and certainly, LIFE, as a general interest monthly had a tough go of it every issue. Still, it was an amazing thing to become (again in a small way) a piece of this legendary magazine.
Having staff status there enabled me to do certain things like the story, “Naked Power, Amazing Grace,” which showed the members of the 1996 Olympic team in the nude. It was very controversial at the time, and I ended up on the Today Show, and Good Morning America. Now, of course, with ESPN: The Body Issue, every year, it’s much more accepted for athletes of all types to doff their duds.
But at that time, it was a tough sell. Having staff affiliation with a down home, Americana, good guy publication like LIFE certainly enabled this effort. The athletes -- many of whom I had worked with prior to doing this story -- trusted the magazine, and therefore me.
JC: You've done a lot of assignments for National Geographic. Do you have a favorite...and why?
JM: Nat Geo has been a great magazine to shoot for, absolutely. Amazing resources are brought to bear on your behalf when you are in the field. They expect great things and are willing to fund and create those opportunities for pictures to make a difference. Again, talk about a group of photogs! So many of my heroes have shot or are still shooting for that magazine; Jim Stanfield, Bill Allard, Dave Harvey, Jodi Cobb, Jim Richardson, George Steinmetz...it’s a long list!
Favorite story ever? It was called The Globalization of Culture, and it was the brain child of my dear friend and editor, Bill Douthitt. This story tapped into my imagination and the ramshackle file cabinet of my brain which is overstuffed with somewhat useless pop culture references, movie dialogue, and other bits and pieces of the news of the world.
The general gist of the effort was to show how we are all trading cultural totems around the globe at ever increasing rates of speed with movies, TV, fashion, food, etc. (And now of course, the internet, but this story was actually pre the internet being the dominant force it is today.)
So, I needed to show how Asian actors were having a huge impact on Hollywood movies. I needed a big Asian star that was known for stunts, and the picture had to say, “Hollywood.” So I dropped Michelle Yeoh on cables under a helicopter, and dangled myself from another set of cables, and we went flying over the Hollywood sign in LA. The shot cost National Geographic a hefty sum of money in expenses, but it ran as the lead to the story and is a good indicator of how my imagination works when it is applied in a free-wheeling way.
JC: You are, in my humble opinion, a Master of lighting. What prompted you towards studio and set lighting? Can you give us an example of one of the hardest things you had to try and light?
JM: I appreciate that sentiment, to be sure. And I know what I’m doing with a set of lights. But I truly stay away from notions of being a master of any aspect of this business. I’m a committed generalist, because, honestly, I’m just not that good at any one thing or type of shooting. I developed a repertoire of skills to see me through and lighting was one of them. For whatever reason, I've always been fascinated by light; especially how it has been used by legendary shooters such as Gjon Mili, John Zimmerman, O. Winston Link, Greg Heisler, and Albert Watson.
And I had patience with it, and enough determination to be nutty enough to ship 47 cases of gear to Chile to shoot giant telescopes for National Geographic. Not too many people are stupid enough -- uh, willing enough -- to put themselves through something like that for $500 a day.
The hardest thing I ever did with lighting was an assignment for Sports Illustrated where I had to turn the University of Texas diving arena into a stroboscopic flash studio. It took me five days to black out this giant arena with a ten meter platform with several hundred yards of black material and then set up five zones of lighting that the synchronized platform divers would pass through.
Additionally, I had to light the water in the pool from underneath. That meant large flash units positioned in all the viewing portholes around the tank which were naturally separated from the camera by hundreds of tons of concrete. I had to devise a way to fire all this above and underwater lighting and time it properly so the tandem of the synchronized divers would pass through each zone with a flashed, sharp image, and then hit the water that would glow blue. This was in film days, with no digitally instantaneous confirmation. It was extremely hard to do. The expenses cost SI a boatload of money for the one published photo. Thankfully it ran as a four-page gatefold!
JC: You are also, in my humble opinion, one wild and crazy guy...doing things like hanging from the top of the Empire State Building and other structures to get some incredible perspectives. I am guessing you are not afraid of heights...but what goes through your mind during those shoots...and are you afraid of anything?
JM: I’m not afraid of heights, but I’m definitely afraid to fail. So many things can go wrong…bad weather, bad light…and the fear of dropping something is huge in my head. My God, you could kill somebody. I shot from the top of the Empire State Building, the very tip, at the red warning light, and I've changed out film canisters in the wind up there, which is always pretty much rocking you around. Holy smoke, a film canister dropped from up there would be dangerous!
And climbing a major metropolitan building is a process. For instance, when I climbed the Empire State Building (four times) arrangements had to be made to shut down several TV stations which broadcast from that antenna. The microwave up there will just fry you, and your ropes, when that puppy is chugging full blast. And even though you climb at say, 3am; that’s still hard to arrange. I mean, there are a lot of insomniacs in NY!
JC: Please tell our readers something about Joe McNally that most people don't know.
JM: Hmmmm…I went to five different grammar schools. We moved a lot. It was good training actually, to be a photog. Also, I may be the only photographer who has had the cover of National Geographic and the cover of LIFE on the newsstand simultaneously. Trust me, this unlikely occurrence, totally a product of things I had nothing to do with, is not something anyone gives a shit about, quite rightly. But it does give me a chuckle when I think about it, which is virtually never.
JC: You have always pushed the envelope of creative thinking. Your "Faces of Ground Zero," project was a classic example of that by using life-sized Polaroids for your portraits. Tell us a little about that project, how it came about and some background on the technical aspects of shooting with such a large format camera.
JM: In the aftermath of 9/11, I had no role at all. I was not down at Ground Zero shooting. There were truly excellent photographers already down there from day one, doing memorable work. There was nothing for me to contribute in that regard. But I did want to contribute something—anything.
I had used the Giant Polaroid once before. I did a small story on the camera, which is totally unique, the only one of its kind in the world. I was intrigued and did some testing with it. So, I thought of the project in relationship to that instrument. It’s the kind of camera where you have to literally stand for your portrait session, in front of this enormously bulky apparatus. It’s a bit like engaging in old time portraiture. The camera, via its size and rendering capabilities, imparts to the subject a certain power, perhaps deriving from a sense of formalism inherent in the process of using it. I thought this might be an appropriate instrument to use to portray this emotional and courageous group of people whose lives had intersected with 9/11.
I wrote to John Huey, the Editorial Director of Time Warner, bypassing the traditional routes of bringing the notion to a magazine. I knew the project needed corporate funding which was beyond the scope of a picture department. I had shot for Time Warner magazines for twenty years. I felt that the idea would at least get an audience. I simultaneously wrote to Dick Stolley, and Dan Okrent, the only two managing editors in my history with Time Inc. magazines who knew the power of pictures. They were immediate supporters. Within 48 hours, Huey gave me funding, and we moved into the camera.
It’s the size of a one-car garage. Two technicians were physically inside the camera, while I directed the subject outside. The lens is a huge piece of glass stuck in the wall. It cannot be focused. You have to move your subject into the proper focus, and at f32 or so, there’s less than an inch of depth of field. I knew I needed a film set of shots as well, so I wired the strobe system into a Mamiya 6x7 camera, which was bore-sighted directly under the Giant Polaroid lens. That massive lens also has no shutter, so we had to work camera obscura, in the dark. We’d go black in the room, and then I would pull the cap off the Giant Polaroid lens, and hit the cable release on the Mamiya, thus giving me a simultaneous dupe. A Giant Polaroid, and a corresponding piece of medium format film, were both done in a single flash of light.
We shot the camera for three straight weeks, and the project resulted from that. I lived in that studio during that time, rarely straying more than a couple blocks, as we were taking crews in the wee hours, or late at night, and through the day. Needless to say, it was an emotional time.
JC: You are only one of a handful of people who have been named a Nikon Ambassador. What does that title and distinction mean to you and what responsibilities come with that designation?
JM: I’m very proud to be a Nikon Ambassador. I've shot Nikon cameras since the beginning in 1973. Hence, I know them, and they have dependably seen me through the thick and thin of shooting jobs over all these years. So, I feel good talking about them, and having the relationship. It’s a positive step for Nikon and for us.
They have reached out to their long time shooters, and are now involving us more than ever before. We consult, and give them wish lists of what we would like to see developed in the upcoming gear. We shoot campaigns, and do lectures when asked. We are called to meetings to discuss how to approach the marketplace of photography as it presents itself now. It’s a very good two way street.
JC: Is there a project that you're currently working on that you are at liberty to talk about?
JM: I’m always working on something. One thing a photographer has to be now is proactive. You have to create ideas, write proposals, and seek work. So, I've been piecing together funding for smaller assignments all of which roughly deal with the performance arts, which is something I've been fascinated with since I was much younger.
Backstage; what happens behind the curtain with these amazing performers such as circus people, acrobats, and the like. I've been working with the community of performers in Las Vegas for a bit now. And I hope after much time spent, I’ll have amassed a body of work that merits publication.
I am also writing another book; tentative title, “The Real Deal.” It will be an unflinching look at the assigning life of a photographer, and how assignments either work or fail, and that success or failure spins on many factors, some of which are completely beyond the photographer’s control.
JC: It looks like a lot of your time these days is devoted to workshops, seminars and lectures all over the world. Was that a decision made in reaction to a less than fruitful editorial market? How do you squeeze in the editorial and commercial assignments into that rather rigorous teaching schedule?
JM: It just kind of happened, really. I was mentored in remarkable ways by editors and photographers in my early career and their advice and counsel was enormously helpful. Hence I have great respect for the mentoring process. It works. I enjoy teaching, and put a lot of energy into it. I’m 62 now. Shipping 47 cases to Chile and climbing all sorts of buildings isn't going to go on forever!
The magazine market has diminished, to be sure. Editors at the staple magazines I grew up with are now often looking to younger shooters, as they should. There are also an abundance of contracts out there now that older photographers, such as me, just won’t sign.
So, what we do now is look for commercial work, and we've been pretty successful at that. I shot four ads this past summer and that had a very positive impact on the studio’s ability to continue. I shoot editorially as well— I just shot a couple covers in the last few weeks—but the jobs are more limited in scope and in budget. Still fun to shoot, but they are now just a part of the overall picture of what we do and not the main driving force.
JC: As someone who experienced the transition from analog to digital is there anything you miss about the "good old days?" And for fair play, is there anything you DON'T miss?
JM: I miss the experience of the staff, or gathering of photographers, that was directly -- at least in part -- related to the idea of shooting film. At the end of the day at the newspaper, everybody had to come in and process their film. There was community around that as well as the editing process. You saw everyone’s work and it made you a better shooter. You also got to give your colleagues a bunch of grief, and receive the same. That staff experience was a great way to grow, especially as a young shooter.
Now, all assignments are sent via email and the pictures are returned via email. Which is wonderful and efficient, but the human element is something I miss. It also makes many photographers work in a vacuum, where they have to be the editors of their take and send in their selects. Many shooters are not the best editors of their own work. A good editor is essential to shape the story and move it along by viewing the work in a dispassionate way. Lots of photographers, understandably, having perhaps risked so much to shoot a set of photos, get too close to those pictures to be effective editors.
But there’s no way you could drag me back to Kodachrome. The quality we have now, and the instantaneous knowledge of the job outcome is something that is amazing nowadays. So I guess you could say I don’t miss the anxiety and stomach churn that occurred while your film was being processed. Everyone now gets anxious about double backing up, and triple backing up your files…which makes sense. But if you really want to get nervous, try dumping 100 rolls of Kodachrome, your production say, for an entire week of shooting a job for the Geographic, into a bag and shipping it from Mumbai to Wash DC. And waiting three days for them to confirm they got it. That I don’t miss at all!
JC: What's your take on the future of the professional photography landscape? Has on-line content and social media taken over the publishing world? And I have to ask the question that's been asked for so many years..."Is print dead?"
JM: I’m no fortune-teller, but I don’t feel print will ever die. Obviously it has diminished, and the internet dominates. But I do think this combination of events has promise of a bright future for visual storytellers everywhere. I always tell our assistants -- who are good young photographers -- they will have to be their own one person info-tainment outlet. They will need to know how to shoot a story, both in stills and video. They will need to know audio. They will need to know how to mesh the still image and the moving image effectively. They will have to keep up with the technology of storytelling, which is moving fast. They will have to know design, and how to work the web.
And, very importantly, they will have to find ways to monetize their efforts. That’s the hard thing. How do you find outlets for the work, and outlets that will pay something for the content in fair fashion? That’s the challenge. Which means it gets thrown back on shooters to seek work and be proactive in proposing ideas and keep pushing their name and abilities out there. They will need to know how to write well, and draw up a cohesive proposal, and write a blog and tweet and do the social media swirl. It’s a lot. But the technology available to us now has enlarged the envelope of our collective imaginations, so it’s worth the effort.
JC: Lastly, what advice can you give to today's aspiring photographer? Do you have any final thoughts on anything that we haven't talked about?
JM: For young shooters...stay the course. There will be awful times…when you can’t pay the rent, and nothing is working, including your eyes. There will be creative dry spells, and uncertainty will abound. But, throughout all the uncertainty and the misgivings, there is at the end of the road…at the end of the job…the certainty of the photograph. A slice of time, now preserved and immutable…a done deal!
There are very few fields and endeavors which offer that kind of wonderful finality on a regular basis. There are crazy times I've been through, when the shit is coming down so hard that I feel like I gotta wear a hat; and the camera is a refuge from that maelstrom. No one else decides when to push that shutter. I make that decision. There is clarity there, in the midst of all the clatter and chatter of life in general. That click of a camera is very reassuring.
In the field, we have to decide; win, lose or draw. We can’t wait for the meeting next week. And we will be second-guessed and our efforts criticized as lacking or inadequate. That’s all okay…because we were there; at that moment of exposure. Present. Engaged. Breathing the air, with an eye in the lens, hoping and waiting for a defining, conclusive bunch of elements to occur that fires the head, heart and finger…simultaneously!
Books: Faces of Ground Zero: http://www.amazon.com/Faces-Ground-Zero-Portraits-September/dp/0756774322?ie=UTF8&tag=joemcnpho-20
EDITOR'S NOTE: This will be the last zPhotoJournal published in 2014. We will resume publishing on Wednesday January, 7, 2015. Have a great holiday!
DO YOU HAVE A STORY YOU THINK IS A GOOD CANDIDATE FOR ZPHOTOJOURNAL? EMAIL YOUR SUGGESTION TO: JIM.COLTON@ZUMAPRESS.COM